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United Brotherhood of Carpenters' students learning skills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In its 10-year-old education center under an interstate bridge in South Charleston, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 160 trains young people who hope to make careers out of working on construction projects.

"We help apprentices and journeymen upgrade their skills in building and installing aerial lifts, metal framing, drywalls, acoustical ceilings, stairs and flooring -- including ceramic tiles, vinyl composition tile, sheet vinyl and linoleum," said Jeremy Jeffers, director of the union's apprentice and training program.

"'Skills, Productivity and Attitude' is our motto. I would also add 'Safety,'" Jeffers said.

The program is one of hundreds of training and apprenticeship programs around West Virginia -- programs backed by construction unions, contractors and companies.

On Wednesday, Wes Tully of South Charleston was one of the students at the carpenters' union center.

"This week, we are learning about steel framing and hanging drywalls," Tully said. "I may start a job on Monday."

Whether that happens or not, Tully said, "This will be my career. After I went to the Ben Franklin Career Center in Dunbar, I knew I wanted to do this. Everett [Johnson, an instructor at the training center] came to our school and I figured out I wanted to be an apprentice.

"The pay is good. But being happy with what you are doing is most important," Tully said.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters also runs training centers in Parkersburg, Bridgeport and Wheeling.

"Our four-year apprenticeship program is registered through the United States Department of Labor," Jeffers said. "To become a journeyman carpenter, an apprentice takes 760 hours of classes and has 6,400 hours of on-the-job training."

To get into the program, each applicant must take a written test, a hands-on test and have a face-to-face interview.

When students graduate from the four-year carpenters' union program, they will have earned 43 hours of credit toward an associate college degree in applied science.

"Then you usually have to take seven more generic freshman-year classes, like English 101, to get 21 more credits for your associate degree," Jeffers said. "Several of us have gotten degrees through the Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College."

The Charleston-based Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation maintains a website with a map of apprentice programs. The "Crafts Apprenticeship Programs" map offers links to locations and programs in every county, programs that train apprentices to become: boilermakers, bricklayers, carpenters, cement masons, electricians, iron workers, insulators, millwrights, operating engineers, painters, plumbers, roofers, welders and sheet metal workers.

The ACT map lists programs close to residents in each of the state's 55 counties, as well as programs in 34 counties in other states along West Virginia's borders.

The map also offers links to details about each program and how to enroll. The links often include printable copies of apprenticeship applications; detailed schedules and locations of training programs; and links to unions that represent workers in each of the occupations.

"Our programs range from two years to five years. They are 'earn while you learn' programs, said Steve White, executive director of the ACT Foundation.

"Once you are accepted, you are called 'indentured' and you take at least 144 hours of classroom training a year. You work on jobs and get paid, working for local contractors on a variety of different tasks.

"Over your apprenticeship, the goal is to give you a variety of training and knowledge," White said. "After four years, carpenters will have a wide variety of skills. They are employable and will meet industry's needs."

At any given time, at least 2,500 apprentices are being trained throughout the state, White said.

"Our programs are jointly administered by labor and management -- 50-50 control," he said. "We fund them. We run them. We produce the most productive, highest skilled craft workers in the world.

The federal Fitzgerald Act regulates apprenticeship programs, requiring students to work at a variety of different tasks.

"You can't just come in and get a job as a drywall hanger," White said. "You have to do all of it."

Not surprisingly, White believes the job-training programs associated with the ACT Foundation are better than other options.

 "Vocational schools do a good job of preparing people. But they don't have the ability to give students the full breadth of training," White said. "Community colleges lack the hands-on component. They are only classrooms.

"We bring the two together -- the classroom and hands-on training. That is a formula for success."

Applicants trying to get into programs affiliated with the ACT Foundation must meet, and abide by, certain requirements.

"Everybody has to be drug-free. Everyone has to take a drug test, then take other drug tests at random," White said. "Everyone has to have a high school diploma, or a GED, to get into our programs. That bumps a lot of people out.

"You also have to have your own transportation, since you have to travel to work. Typically, most construction sites are not near bus stops. But you can have a great career," White said.

Jeffers said carpenters in his union focus on constructing hospitals, schools and commercial buildings, not homes.

"We do a lot of training on concrete forming and making foundations," Jeffers said. "We also recently built a bridge in Parkersburg."

Huntington resident Casey Amis, another first-year apprentice, also attended training classes at the South Charleston center last week.

"I have heard the first year will be tough. But once you get through the program, you will have steady work. I have a couple of buddies in their fourth years, who travel everywhere in the state."

Amis said his first project will begin Monday at the federal building in Huntington.

"We try to build strong connections with all students in out vocational education programs," White said. "We want them to have a vision -- if you do good here, you can go on and have a great career."  

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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